Chapter 13 – Vignette
Rinascimento through a contemporary lens
Jo-Anne Duggan is a Research Fellow at Victoria University in Melbourne. Her early studies of Italian art and symbolism developed into an enduring fascination with Italy’s historic visual and material culture. She has frequently travelled to Italy to undertake photographic investigations and research, initially for her doctoral thesis on the contemporary experience of the Renaissance in Italian museums, and more recently to explore the historic residences and civic institutions. Duggan’s artistic career has evolved through more than 30 solo and group exhibitions in Australia and internationally. As a scholar and photomedia artist she has long been associated with the arts, and has lectured at a number of universities in critical theory, visual art and culture, art history, photomedia and visual communication. Duggan has been the recipient of a number of awards; she has held residencies in Florence and Prato, and an Australia Council residency in Milan.
Since my formative years in suburban classrooms in Australia, where I studied tiny, colour-separated reproductions of historic Italian art in textbooks, I have been seduced by Italy. The country’s influence on my work and my life, especially over the past 15 years, has been profound, developing not only my artistic and aesthetic awareness but also my sense of self in relation to the world.
As a photomedia artist my practice has been shaped in both conscious and unconscious ways by a passion for Quattrocento and Cinquecento imagery. The symbolism, composition and use of colour and light by artists like Lorenzo Lotto and Caravaggio I have continually found intriguing and sensual. Something in their historicity and ‘Italianicity’ – to borrow a term from Roland Barthes (1985, 23) – offered a form of escape, a liminality that I have often sought in art. Renaissance painting in particular held considerable sway over my early artistic creations, and eventually gave way to a deeper interest in the humanist ideals of beauty, taste, history and the exploration of ‘self’. Furthermore, the rise of the artist; the birth of the museum; the use of the camera obscura; the introduction of optical perspective that has in essence influenced our contemporary ways of seeing – these are among the many significant ideas associated with the Renaissance that persistently surface in my own art-making. While the minutiae of dates and historic facts are rarely evident in my images, the knowledge of Italy’s visual culture and its development has contributed immeasurably to the construction of each of my exhibitions.
Through travelling and working in Italy my scholarly and artistic projects came to focus on the wider framework for viewing art, rather than on the Renaissance works themselves; indeed, it is Italy that provides the greater context for the experience of art. The immense wealth of visual culture that remains in the country represents a phenomenal art entity encompassing much more than the linear presentation of artworks in museums. In Italy, the viewing experience is not an engagement with singular objects, but is governed and enriched by the intricate and interwoven conditions of place and culture, with historic backdrops that have been constructed over centuries; rebuilt or restored, or variously left to go to ruin. Many of the frescoes and sculptures that remain in situ continue to belong to the rituals of everyday life, kept in circulation through centuries of lived experience in the civic buildings, piazze, palaces, cathedrals and churches. In their original surroundings these works do not need the qualification of the museum to remain in the eye of the public. Caravaggio’s paintings in chapels in the Roman churches of Santa Maria del Popolo or San Luigi dei Francesi, for example, never cease to draw the adulation of an unending stream of visitors.
Before the Museum and Impossible Gaze
As my examination of contextual frameworks evolved, the historic museums of Italy became infinitely compelling. Enamoured of the visual saturation and the extravagant decoration of these once private palazzi, I have spent much time wandering the corridors, salons and bed chambers that resonate with traces of past lives. These inspiring places have been the focus of my exhibitions Before the Museum (2000–02) and Impossible Gaze (2002–05). These exhibitions consist of large-scale, colour photographic images that have been exhibited a number of times in both Australia and Italy. This work investigates the experience of Italian museums and the multitude of histories – the histories, that is, of the art, the museums themselves, and of the viewers – that collide in the context of viewing Renaissance art. The images convey the complexity of these viewing environments, an intense experience formed at the intersection of cultures, histories, the past and the present, art and the subjectivity of the viewer’s own gaze. In creating this work, the personal, physical, cerebral, sensorial and temporal experiences of art were central to my concerns. In a peculiar act of doubling – and situated firmly within a postmodern tradition – I was making art about the experience of viewing it.
The history, architecture and decoration of the museums where I have photographed – the Doria Pamphili and Barberini Palaces in Rome, and the Pitti Palace, Palazzo Vecchio, Galleria degli Uffizi, Museo di San Marco and Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence – are as significant in the creation of the viewer’s experience as the great artworks they hold. The imposing architecture, with sumptuous interiors integrated into the fabric of the modern museum, provides a visual extravaganza and a privileged place for viewing art. Having undergone centuries of renovations and redecoration, these architectural spaces are ‘consumed’ simultaneously with the collections they house, contributing to, if not defining, the viewer’s visual and visceral engagement. Here historic artworks are continuously interwoven with preceding and succeeding styles of furniture, furnishings and ornamentation, reaffirming that each period is neither a break with the past nor a single entity, but part of a continuum that is embodied by its surroundings. The changes from one artist to another, and from one period to the next, mark a social and artistic continuity of inseparable pasts that reflect the discernment of successive generations of art collectors.
Within the baroque interiors of the Pitti Palace, for example, no artwork or object in the Galleria Palatina and Royal Apartments is afforded any separate space for contemplation; each is immersed in the decoration. In these rooms the visitor is surrounded, with no cornerstone left unadorned: every inch of wall, floor and ceiling space is crammed with ornamentation – so different to the austerity that is characteristic of postmodern tastes. Curved and triangular pediments cover the doorways, windows and niches, and console tables interrupt the composition of frescoes, while the vaulted ceilings and architectural elements are barely distinguishable from their trompe l’oeil replications. The devotional paintings and portraits, with their recurring putti (cupids) and flowing robes, are in deep gilded frames surrounded by marble fireplaces and sumptuous tapestries. Decorative floral swags, acanthus leaves and shells echo the furniture legs, the backs of chairs and their armrests, while the heavy drapes once hung to conserve warmth now serve as a reminder of former daily habitation.
With its richly layered textures, and patterns on every surface, this visually overwhelming environment is an extension of a medieval aesthetic, the horror vacui. The phrase means a ‘fear of empty spaces’, as Ernst Gombrich (1979, 80) explains, referring to the ‘urge which drives the decorator to go on filling any resultant void’. A particular aesthetic style, horror vacui leaves no architectural space free of design, decoration or ornament. In the Pitti Palace, the painted grotesques of earlier periods are accompanied by Renaissance tapestries, baroque silk wall coverings and mannerist paintings. Mirrors are skilfully placed to reflect endless repetitions of symbolic, religious and allegorical motifs. Gombrich (1979, 80) adds that with ‘this method of successive enrichment or elaboration […] maybe the term amor infiniti, the love of the infinite, would be a more fitting description’.
Both the artworks and adornment of this environment are the pre-mechanised, the unique and the handcrafted, all of which contribute to the sense of aura and authenticity that has been so debated by authors from Walter Benjamin to contemporary theorists like Susan Stewart and Celeste Olaquaiga. Although Benjamin (1969, 220) was in favour of the disintegration of the aura associated with original artworks, he commented that ‘even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’. Here Benjamin confirms the significance of the contextualising space. Museums such as the Pitti, impregnated with history, intensify the viewer’s experience of art and foster the sense of authenticity. Even though the works may not have been originally intended for the Pitti, and its interiors are not completely original, a ‘unique existence’ remains. The relationship between the artwork and its physical location is a palpable, ‘authenticating’, and ‘auratic’ context.
Throughout these museums the colour of pigment and fabric, the textures of lustrous gilding and threadbare seams, the inevitable wear and obvious repairs, weave an intricate pattern of individuals, culture, craftsmanship and history. Every handcarved acanthus leaf and every stitch of brocade; the fabric-covered walls and extravagant frames and paintings with their warped panels; the over-painting, pentimenti (visible second thoughts), sgraffito (incised ornamentation), brushstrokes and gilding, their surface texture and restorations – all immortalise the architects of these interiors, and are evidence of those who have cared for them through the centuries. The details of chipped furniture – upholstery that is worn and cracked; stains and frayed edges – signal that time has helped ‘author’ appearances. Inscribed with the weight of the past, these decorative surfaces speak implicitly of the humanity that created them.
The work I have undertaken in Italy is situated within an international tradition of contemporary artists who photograph inside cultural institutions. Sophie Calle, Karen Knorr, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth have all produced significant bodies of work that scrutinise cultural institutions and draw on the framework of the museum as a source for critical analysis and inspiration. Significantly, these artists share a postwar European background and education, and all are producing work from inside a landscape of cultural establishments. These facts, I would suggest, manifest themselves in a particular sensibility in their art, one that expresses an intimacy with the museums and history of Europe. My work is quite different, reflecting my visuality and perception as a postcolonial artist geographically removed from the cultural centres of Europe, and originating from a place where the very idea of the museum is constantly undergoing scrutiny and restructure.
In the art of the above-mentioned photographers, who are working within their own European-ness, there is a sense of ‘the insider’. For me, however, there is an ‘otherness’ that sustains my fascination with a historic European aesthetic. Working outside a European tradition grants me boundless opportunity to re-interpret historic Italian culture, and portray it with a pervading sense of wonder and curiosity. Filled with veneration, my images – their photographic framing and angle of view – brand me as an outsider. They are a sign of my identity, representing my vision as different to that of artists who have been exposed to the ruins of antiquity and the masterpieces of the Renaissance for endless generations.
My work in Italian museums has been enriched by all manner of scholars, curators, historians, museologists, conservators, art handlers, guides and guards, who have expressed to me their views on topics as diverse as dust and politics. The same work has led me through embassies and cultural institutions, universities and Italian bureaucracies, in order to undertake some extraordinary photographic expeditions in the grand galleries of Florence and Rome. I have had the great privilege to work in museums outside their normal opening hours, allowing me the experience of strolling through these awe-inspiring spaces unfettered by either time or crowds. To be alone with the artworks I once knew only in reproduction was an incomparable experience of art ‘in the flesh’.
Sites of Convergence
Continuing my work in Italy, I have more recently turned my photographic gaze on the interior spaces of other forms of public architecture. Still focused on the contextualising elements that are intrinsic to the formation of experience, the exhibition titled Sites of Convergence (2006–08) is concerned with places designed for public assembly: town halls, colleges, chapels and boarding schools. Neither strictly private nor open for public access, these are places of social interaction, living spaces used by the local population for the rituals of daily life. Amidst this architecture, the town’s inhabitants interact; they develop as individuals and grow as a community. Such buildings, containing testimony to the centuries of their continual use, have housed, educated, employed, married, fed or slept countless individuals. Implicit within them is a myriad of integrated histories; of personalities, politics, actions and knowledges that filled the lives of those who have occupied these now archaic spaces.
The initial part of this project was photographed in the Tuscan town of Prato, in the interiors of the monastery of San Niccolò, the Cicognini College, and the Palazzo Comunale. Prato is an ancient yet distinctly modern community, complex and culturally diverse. With a history that extends back to the Etruscans, the town has suffered and recovered from famine, epidemics, pillage and war. From its earliest centuries of wool trading to the major textile industry of today, Prato – like all cities – has experienced various levels of wealth and urban expansion. These centuries of change and development are evident in the art and architecture layered throughout the historic centre, which is a maze of medieval tower houses, Gothic churches and Renaissance and neoclassical palaces.
Time and history are deeply and irrevocably embedded in the interiors I have photographed. The grandiose proportions of Renaissance architecture, the sumptuous eighteenth-century frescoes and nineteenth-century furniture stippled with fragments of modernisation and present-day life and tastes, reflect the constancy of Prato’s history, and that of Italy in the wider sense. The symbols of religiosity and nationhood, often incongruously juxtaposed with contemporary culture, serve to emphasise the intricate layers of time and the social relations that eternally converge. No doubt the visual culture of these architectural contexts is etched into the fabric of innumerable lives. On a more general level my work in Italy is concerned with the complexities not only of historic architecture but of ‘place’ in general and with the human relationship to it. The physical presence of places – beyond bricks and mortar – and their pasts hold an infinite capacity for influencing and shaping both the culture of communities and individual identities today, as well as those of future generations.
It is Italy in its entirety, so concentrated with a history, culture and humanity beyond my own lived experience, that continues to sustain my fascination. Even though the Italian landscape and the country’s culture are familiar to many Australians, I continue to find myself enticed by their beauty and confounded by the power of time that is concentrated in the original cobbled streets and the ancient olive groves. Everything, from the sculpted countryside to the rocky outcrops of hillside towns, embodies continuity. In Italy I am stirred by the sensorial comprehension of belonging to something greater than myself and much larger than my known world. I am fortunate that working as a visual artist allows me to explore this very liminal experience, and to express my concerns with an Italian visual aesthetic that I find breath-takingly inspiring.
Barthes, Roland. 1985. ‘Rhetoric of the image’. In The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, translated by Howard, Richard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’. In Illuminations, edited by Arendt, Hannah; translated by Zohn, Harry. New York: Schoken Books.
Gombrich, Ernst H. 1979. The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.